Archives / 2013 / April

Earth Day – Thin Ice and the inside story of Climate Science

Earth Day, April 22nd, has been chosen as the day for the global launch of a new film on the science behind global environmental change ‘Thin Ice: the Inside Story of Climate Science‘.  This is an exciting project, as the filmmakers include Simon Lamb, who has had a successful career as an academic geologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and then at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand; and David Sington, an experienced filmmaker from DOX productions, who originally trained in Natural Sciences. Simon Lamb and David Sington have previously collaborated on a number of documentary films, most notably Earth Story, which was a fabulous documentary on the story of Planet Earth which first aired in the UK in 1998. I still use the accompanying book ‘Earth Story: The Forces that have Shaped our Planet‘ as one of the introductory readings for first year Earth Science students.

For the next 36 hours or so, you can watch Thin Ice live, and for free, online at http://thiniceclimate.org/watch-the-film.


Having had a chance to see a live screening of Thin Ice, here are my first impressions. ‘Thin Ice’ is a personal journey of discovery  for the filmmaker, Simon Lamb. He has the ambition of trying to understand what climate scientists do, and how they can be confident that global climate is changing. The result is a film that is visually attractive, and that captures in a charming and disarming way the way that science is done. Although there is a narrative, the story mainly unfolds as individual scientists tell the viewers a little bit about the questions they are trying to answer, and how they go about it – whether by collecting ancient samples of ice (bits of the ‘frozen history of climate’); or by rooting back through archives of past measurements of the weather; or by running computer simulations of past, present and future climate. The ‘laboratory’ shifts from snow pits in Antarctica and the heaving deck of a ship in the Southern Ocean, to the physics and computing laboratories of Potsdam and Oxford. This is not a film that really answers the question of why global warming is happening, but it is instead an account of how scientists gather the evidence to try and understand the workings of the climate system. Above all, it is a lovely film about science, by scientists.

What do you wish that you had learned in Graduate School?

In the UK, the landscape of graduate doctoral training (for the PhD, or DPhil degree) in the field of environmental research is about to be radically reshaped.  The main funding agency for PhD training, the Natural Environment Research Council, is currently running a competition for Universities and other Research Organisations to run coordinated doctoral training programmes from next year (October 2014), built around the idea of  training future environmental scientists in cohorts within a multidisciplinary environment.  This differs from current practice in the UK, where funding for doctoral training from NERC is allocated to individual departments on an annual basis, based on an algorithm that takes into account elements such as grant income.

The move to a programme of Doctoral Training Partnerships, where partnerships will be between both academic and research ‘producers’ and non-academic ‘users’ of NERC-funded science and scientists, offers an opportunity to embed some completely new aspects of training into PhD and DPhil programmes.

Looking back on your own graduate training, what  do you wish that you had learned about, been exposed to, or been encouraged to think about while  in Graduate School, rather than having to catch up later?  Here are a few examples of my own [thinking back to a PhD many years ago], just to get started..

1. How to write: for journals, for the media, for the public.

2. How to work collaboratively.

3. How to write a fundable research proposal, and how to manage the research, researchers and other aspects once funded.

4. How scientific research translates into the ‘real world’: who uses it, why and how.

Conference report – EGU highlights, Day 4

Large international science conferences are extraordinary events. For a week at a time, scientists emerge from their offices and laboratories and join a throng of thousands, negotiating their way through tens of thousands of presentations across multiple parallel sessions. For many of those attending, the scale of the event is less important, though, than the opportunity the meeting presents for smaller clusters of researchers to come together to talk about problems of common interest. This week, the European Geosciences Union General Assembly has been taking place in Vienna; a city that seems to me at least to have one of the best integrated public transport systems in the world. With 13,500 abstracts and 11,000 delegates this year, this is one of the major annual Geoscience meetings worldwide, and it attracts people from across the world. This week, I was one of the convenors of a specialist session on volcanic ash; a session that in the end began in the depths of the volcanic conduit, and ended with the spread of volcanic through the atmosphere. This meeting within-a-conference worked really well: the 45 presentations brought together a mix of specialists from disciplinary backgrounds as diverse as applied mathematics, atmospheric physics, meteorology, geophysics and volcanology and from universities, government agencies and volcano observatories for a whole day of discussion.

This sort of forum offers both a very quick way to ‘catch up’ in areas where one might already be a specialist; and to fill in important gaps in knowledge and understanding in other areas. More importantly, it allows people to network; to gain a keener understanding of ‘how things work’, and of the underlying assumptions and other constraints that influence the way that the science is developing. In my own session, the overwhelming challenges ultimately relate to two themes: scale or size, and accessibility. Size, because both in the volcanic conduit and in the atmosphere, the properties and behaviour both of the magma and of the ash cloud relate intimately to the nature, properties and behaviour of materials at the micron or sub-micron scale. Accessibility, because neither the flowing magma within the conduit nor the transient volcanic ash cloud are particularly easy to sample directly while ‘live’. Instead, researchers rely on using  remote-sensing measurements (e.g. seismicity, ground- or satellite-based 0bservations) to gather real-time data, along with with simulation (experimental and computational), and finally inference and validation from analysis of eruptive products, where any are preserved, in order to piece together a story. It would be hard to bring together a similarly diverse group of specialists in a forum other than a large conference without considerable effort, which is perhaps one explanation of why the General Assembly format is both attractive and successful.


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